The Christmas banners are already up in shop windows and in department stores, much to my frustration. Meanwhile the smell of artificial pumpkin spice and over-sweetened cream hangs in the air of shopping arcades and offices. I have to say, Japan really goes full-on with the decorations for every festival and season. Pumpkins in October, Cherry Blossom in Spring and Santa in December. Yet many don’t understand or know the “Nativity Story” behind it all. And if they do, they ask me how Santa Claus fits into the birth of Jesus. Anyway I digress, back home in England the smell of brandy, dry fruits and baked pasty is a delightful one that conjures up one image; the humble mince pie.
Mince Pies are a staple of Christmas in Great Britain, and have been since its origins in the European Crusades during the thirteenth century. The trading/ pillaging of exotic spices, fruits and foreign cooking were brought back home. To which, in true British culinary style, we baked them into pies. Originally, mince pies actually had meat in them. Whether it was a leg of lamb, or a cow tongue, the combinations of spices and fruit have remained the same. Interestingly, during the English Civil War and the rise of the Puritans, they were banned along with the celebration of Christmas for being too Catholic and fun.
Nowadays the meat has been dropped and mince pies have firmly become sweet, baked goods. The filling of “mincemeat” is a combination of dry fruits, brandy, sugar and spices (cinnamon, cloves and nutmeg). During my second year of secondary school (junior high), we made our own in Design Technology/ Home Economics class. Unfortunately some students hadn’t understood the difference between minced meat (ground beef) and mincemeat, which caused some problems during the lesson. Meanwhile the pastry is a basic shortcrust variety using flour, plenty of butter, sugar and eggs. It’s all rather simple, which perfectly highlights British baking in general. Brandy Cream (brandy, cream and sugar) is the traditional condiment to a mince pie, but I’ve never been a big fan of the combination. Instead a cup of hot tea will suffice.
Finding mince pies in Japan has been an impossible feat. I’ve checked import stores, foreign-run bakeries, and “English cafes” with little success. It seems that Japan has adopted Christmas Stollen (from Germany) as the foreign, seasonal sweet of choice during Christmas. Therefore, I’ve been reduced to asking my mum to send a box of them from home. They’ll usually tide me over for a week. Then the cravings kick in. However my girlfriend and I are going to attempt to make them this Christmas. It’ll be interesting to see how they turn out. Fingers crossed.